Can Europe Make It?

The rise of women in Italian politics

From Laura Boldrini and Cecile Kyenge to Emma Bonino, Italian politics has recently been revitalised by a new generation of active female politicians. Can they be a force for good in Italian politics?

Simona Aimar
20 August 2013
Laura Boldrini, President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Demotix/Simona Granati. All rights reserved.

Laura Boldrini, President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Demotix/Simona Granati. All rights reserved.

A couple of weeks ago, Silvio Berlusconi was condemned to four years in prison for tax evasion. This didn't come as a surprise to anybody, as it is not exceptional for an Italian minister to find himself having trouble with the law. Corruption is commonplace. The Italian government has recently been rated among the least efficient in the world, alongside Ukraine, Greece and Venezuela. And it is not a stable political system either - Italy has had more than fifty different governments since the Second World War. 

The Italian elections on 24-5 February demonstrated the stalemate at the heart of the Italian political scene. None of the traditional parties gained a majority. Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition gained 29.18 percent of the vote; the left-wing coalition got 29.54 percent; the Five Star Movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo on an 'anti-politics' platform won a surprising 25.5 percent. But none was able to form a majority government. After weeks of gridlock, President Giorgio Napolitano appointed Enrico Letta, a member of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD), to form a coalition government. Letta is now the non-elected Prime Minister of Italy. His government can survive only as long as the left-wing and right-wing parties are willing to compromise. Many observers – Italian and foreign – are surprised the government has made it this far, but for how long? For now, the Italian political panorama looks dire. 

But there is at least one positive thing about the recent Italian elections: the percentage of women elected to parliament increased from 20 to 30 percent. The elected MPs are younger than usual, too. This result comes as a surprise to many, since, according to a study by the Inter Parliamentary Union, the proportion of women in Italian politics before the last election was one of the lowest in the world.

On 16 March, the Parliament elected the new president of the Italian Camera (Chamber of Deputies, also known as the Lower Chamber), Laura Boldrini. She is the third woman ever to be in that role. “Perhaps next time the fact that a woman acts in this role won’t count as a piece of news any more”, commented Irene Pivetti, who held the role in 1994-1996. 

Judging by Boldrini’s first speech in Parliament, her election could mark the start of a new era in Italian politics. The 51-year-old politician addressed a bunch of delicate issues that politicians tend to avoid with care. For instance: a significant minority of Italians still has sympathy for Fascism. Most Italian politicians are well aware of this: this is why, for example, Berlusconi declared that “Fascism also did some good things” a week before the election, on the assumption that this would bring him more votes. In contrast, Boldrini emphasised that Italian democracy was born to free the country from Fascism.

Another example is the delicate issue of suspected connections between the mafia and Italian politics. Boldrini pointed out how many innocent people had died because of their fight against the mafia and how the country is indebted to them. She also pointed to the need for a transparent political system, and the hopelessness that is afflicting many Italians at the moment.

But Boldrini's boldest words came when she talked about women. Violence against women remains an everyday occurrence in Italy. In 2012, one woman was killed every three days as a result of domestic violence. This year, there have already been more than 50 victims. Moreover, there is a culture of silence about violence against women – omertà, almost. Boldrini broke the silence: “We know that we have to take care of the women who have suffered from violence disguised as love”, she said.

When Boldrini spoke up for women, there was a standing ovation in the Parliament. This was an incredibly moving sight for an Italian. When something noisy happens in my Parliament, it is generally because one MP loudly insults another and a quarrel starts across the aisles. 

Boldrini's CV is as impressive as her words. She is a former journalist who was subsequently involved in the UN for several years. After working at the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme, she has been the spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency, supporting projects in Iraq, the Balkans and Georgia. She entered the world of politics just recently, with the left-wing Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) party, an ally of Pierluigi Bersani's Democratic Party. “I did it because I was feeling indignant about Italian politics”, she said, adding that “one can’t confine oneself to complaining”.

Boldrini seems to have a clear idea about how politics should work. She asked her colleagues to make the Camera “the house of good politics”. Her speech closed thus: “Politics has to become transparent, and our passion”. Unbelievably, these words were spoken in Italy, in a Parliament that has seen so many cynical and opaque moves.

Does this mean a feminine wave has taken over Italian politics? In April Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister, made history by appointing more women MPs to the cabinet than any previous Italian government. Seven of the twenty-one cabinet ministers he appointed were women. It's still far from a 50-50 balance, but a record nonetheless. 

The women Letta chose are exceptionally well qualified, and occupy key positions. The Foreign Minister is the former European commissioner Emma Bonino, a senior member of the small Radical Party. The Integration Minister is Cecile Kyenge, a member of the Democratic Party – who is also Italy's first black minister, another first for Letta’s government. Kyenge is a doctor who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 2002, Kyenge has been leading several intercultural associations that defend the rights of immigrants and support cooperation between Italy and Africa, such as the association Primo Marzo. "Letta's decision represents a key step for concrete change in Italy" she said. 

But despite these advances, life is not easy for Italian women in politics. The country has a long history of misogyny. Stefano Rodotà, a now retired MP who served in Parliament since 1979, remembers how MPs used to elect “Miss Montecitorio”, singling out the most beautiful female MP (‘Montecitorio’ is the name of the Italian Parliament building). “Now things are much worse”, he adds. And he is right. Female Italian politicians face serious insults and threats on a daily basis. Boldrini receives constant threats, including constructed images of her being raped and of her throat being slit. So does Kyenge, who also has to deal with racism. She is often the target of the anti-immigration Northern League. And recently, someone threw bananas at her during a public meeting.

Even in this climate, women work hard for political change. “I am not afraid”, Boldrini declares, “fear paralyzes; politicians have to be brave and act”. She does not want bodyguards, and in the face of threats from internet trolls, she demands a law that deals with online threats, which Italy lacks. Kyenge is just as brave. “I came to Italy alone from Congo when I was 18 and I am not going to stop when faced by the odd obstacle”, she said. No wonder this leads to praise.

Every new speech by Boldrini gets heavy media coverage. The last time I saw the headline “Boldrini moved the crowd” in a newspaper? A few days ago. The last time she wrote a much circulated article in a major Italian newspaper? The day after that. And there are results. Traditionally the President of the Lower Chamber does not put forward law proposals and does not vote. Boldrini respects this tradition, but nevertheless effectively advocates that the Parliament pursues policies. One thing she actively pursues is the reduction of the cost of Italian politics, which is notoriously one of the highest in Europe. Interestingly enough, after years of pay increases, the Parliament has just approved around 10 million euros in cuts to the MPs’ salaries over the last months. Boldrini supported these measures and asked for further steps to be taken in the same direction.

Another hot and complex issue in Italy is immigration. The number of immigrants has been consistently high in recent decades, and is presently increasing because of the unstable political situation in North Africa. In this first half of 2012, there was a 175 percent increase in immigrants reaching the coasts of southern Italy in comparison with the same period the previous year. Many die on the journey, and the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini – yes, that’s another woman politician - has publicly asked Italy and Europe for help.

The Italian law on immigration is restrictive. Second-generation immigrants are denied citizenship despite being born in Italy till they are 18 years old. First-generation immigrants get permission to stay only if they already have a working contract waiting for them once they reach Italy. If they come to Italy without a job offer, they have to be repatriated. Given a notoriously slow judicial system, illegal immigrants often spend several months in CIEs (identification and expulsion centres) before getting repatriated. In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officially asked Italy to improve the living conditions in CIEs, but nothing has changed yet.

Kyenge backs a new law on immigration. She proposed a more moderate ius soli, which would grant citizenship to anyone who is born in Italy from foreigners who have been legally residing in Italy for at least one year, or who was born in Italy and spent a certain number of years living in Italy.

Revising Italy’s immigration laws would be revolutionary. Which is why the Northern League disapproves. This disapproval often manifests itself in personal attacks against Kyenge, with racist remarks - “this is the government of bonga-bonga”, recently declared a Northern League MP. 

But Kyenge is still doing her job. Last week, she launched a long-term anti-discrimination plan, in collaboration with the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policies Maria Cecilia Guerra – another woman! - and the National Office Against Racial Discrimination (UNAR). The main idea is to “work from below”: local councils and associations will have to put forward specific proposals for improving discrimination issues in their areas, with special attention being given to employment and education. The goal is to tackle gender and racial discrimination, by identifying and removing obstacles to equality - for instance, by allowing everyone access to social and health services. Kyenge also incessantly promotes campaigns against racism. Recently, she publicly supported an anti-racism organisation which sells T-shirts saying “if you close off racism, a world opens up to you”.

There are further examples of women politicians who are doing well. Anna Maria Cancellieri, the current Minister of Justice, put forward a decree to depopulate the notoriously overcrowded Italian prisons. The Foreign Minister Emma Bonino works towards rebuilding Italy’s international credibility - a hard task after Berlusconi’s era. Her reputation of intransigence against corruption should prove helpful. So far, her main policy has been to promote Italy’s involvement abroad through more active consulates and embassies. Recently, she pressed the Government to accept 102 immigrants coming on a boat from Libya - among them were five pregnant women and several children. Malta did not let them approach its harbour, despite several pledges from the EU. “One cannot let people die at sea”, Bonino declared. She also actively promotes the abolition of death penalty and torture worldwide.

Italian female politicians also back measures against violence against women. Italy recently ratified the Istanbul Convention, a 2011 Council of Europe document on tackling violence against women. The country is thus one of the first five European countries to ratify the Convention. The Government approved a major decree on violence against women a few days ago. “The anti-femicide decree”, as they call it, allows people to anonymously report instances of violence against women. Women who have been the victim of violence and can’t afford a lawyer will get one for free. Women immigrants who have been abused will be granted permission to stay. Boldrini asked the Parliament to reunite this week – well before the official end of the summer break, on 6 September - to pass the decree.

It is a happy beginning for Boldrini&Co. Italy's new wave of female politicians is, so far, having a strong public impact on a society which tends not to take women seriously, and was forgetting how politicians can publicly promote good change. But will they manage to put Italy's politics on a better track?

The author wishes to thank David Egan for his help in editing this article.

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